The Divide over Prayer in Schools

Regardless of your position, the very mention of school prayer probably makes you feel a little angry.  It’s emotionally charged, and perhaps that’s why, fifty years after the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer  was unconstitutional, the debate still rages on.  But frankly, the debate is stale. The Pew Stats, highlighted in this recent article  by Jaweed Kaleem, show that 57% of Americans still disapprove of the ruling.  Positions haven’t changed in half a century: each side knows their position and everyone toes the line.

I’m not going to join the legions of bloggers weighing in on one side or the other, because after 50 years of debate, what can anyone on either side say that would change the other’s mind?  Instead, I’m curious whether there’s anything fresh to say about the debate.  Perhaps a fresh perspective is needed, not about which side is right, but on why the whole debate has been stalled out for fifty years.

As a student of religion and science, I can’t help but see the debate as a classic example of “religion and science” becoming “religion versus science” with the classroom as the battlefield.  I believe this with good reason; it’s no coincidence that any conversation about prayer in the schools will quickly shift into a conversation about evolution versus creationism in the classroom.

But if we move beyond the antagonism, science and religion together may be able to shed new light on the debate.  When science and religion are not pitted against each other, then we can seek to scientifically understand the wide variety of religious concerns.  We can seek that understanding, not to dispel religion as foolish (that’s science vs. religion), but to gain a deeper perspective on the people holding those beliefs.

From that research, we quickly begin to see different ideologies and worldviews connected to different beliefs, including beliefs about the place of prayer in school.  That connection may not be surprising, but it is surprising to realize that ideologies rule by emotion, not reason.  Remember that indignation you felt at the mention of school prayer?  That anger is part of what solidifies your identities as a liberal or conservative, and it’s part of what keeps an argument entrenched for fifty years.

Perhaps as we gain a better understanding of our differing ideologies and how they function for each of us, we can begin to shake up a stale debate.  Perhaps we can even begin to speak across the divide with empathy.

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